Plastic is killing the world, can hemp save it?

The plastic industry creates 10 million tonnes of oceanic waste annually, ravaging ecosystems and replacing marine life with single-use items. The estimated decomposition time of these plastics range from 20 to 400 years, with the majority of single-use items outliving their users. A majority of these plastics slowly degrade into fine microscopic particles, particles now found in almost all marine species, and given enough time, will be found in us too.

Widespread waste is only one facet of plastic’s problem. Its production is responsible for nearly 20% of all fossil fuel emissions worldwide. The reason is rooted in its composition; over 99% of the world’s plastic is petroleum based. Oil is extracted, refined into monomers (a molecule that can be bonded to identical molecules to form a polymer), converted into polymers, and then compounded into one of 5 common types of plastic.

Hemp Federation Plastic Infographic

Most of these plastics are primarily produced in China and the U.S (60 Million and 38 Million tonnes respectively), where shale gas is readily accessible. Petroleum’s importance to plastic has rendered its production a corollary to the oil industry, with the largest oil producers in the world, Exxon, Shell, and Chevron, also monopolizing the U.S plastic industry. The symbiosis of plastic and oil ownership is even evident geographically, with production sites clustering around oil hotspots like the U.S Gulf Coast. The problems of the oil and plastic industries are synonymous, though while the oil industry is conceding market space to electric cars, plastic is still awaiting much needed innovation.

Sustainable plastic alternatives must tackle both the problems of waste pollution and emissions to attain viability among consumers and producers. And with climate change surging to the forefront of consumer worries, carbon-conscious plastics face a bright future.

Entrenched infrastructure means traditional petroleum plastic remains, and will remain, the most cost-effective method of producing plastic. Though given a large enough shift in consumer behaviour, sustainability, rather than price, may soon dictate success.

Where is plastic’s innovation?

Bioplastics, polymers created through a blend of biomass material and petroleum product, are likely the most heavily publicized solution to plastic. While bioplastics only retain around 1% of plastic production worldwide, emphasis is on their long-term viability. With ‘biodegradability’ and sustainable production methods flooding the worldwide marketing sphere, bioplastics are being hailed more and more as plastic’s future, but, at the moment, they have problems.

The majority of market-grade bioplastics are created through a blend of 30% biomass (compostable organic material) and 70% traditional petroleum derived plastic. The inclusion of biomass materials means that 30% of the product is grown, rather than extracted. This leads to a more sustainable production strategy. Unfortunately, while production becomes sustainable, waste does not, and bioplastics still degrade at the same rate as traditional plastics. The often-touted draw of ‘biodegradability’ is also completely unsupported. ‘Biodegradable’ is actually only a word which, legally, may be applied by companies to any product capable of decomposition — read, any product.

Hemp 101: Bioplastics Plastic Manufacturing on HempFederation

Bioplastics also pose additional challenges to sea life. The pesticides and fertilizers used to grow biomass seep into ocean water and disrupt the delicate chemical compositions of marine environments. The solution naturally being recycling, though this also presents problems. Recycling bioplastics alongside regular plastics prevents both from being reused. Bioplastics actually need separate recycling infrastructure, and with only 30% of traditional plastics being recycled in the U.S, this is unlikely to occur quickly.

There are also certain uses of conventional plastics that will be tough to replace with bioplastics. For example, plastic containers holding corrosive liquids that require long-term storage may require the mechanical properties of conventional plastic types. Until there are significant advances in bioplastics ability to withstand corrosion or degradation when in contact with these corrosives, it will be tough to completely eliminate conventional plastics fully.

Despite the marketing, bioplastics have significant hurdles ahead of them, some of them seemingly insurmountable.

Hemp 101: Bioplastics Hemp Farm Picture on HempFederation
Hemp’s Unique Role

Enter hemp-based bioplastics and PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoate).

The features of the hemp crop afford it a unique role in the future of bioplastics, possibly solving many current problems and also providing entirely new strategies.

Hemp’s structure as a crop is perfectly designed for PHA. PHA being a type of polymer created through the use of bacteria, whereupon being fed biomass, highly selective bacteria produce compostable PHA’s to be fused into truly sustainable bioplastics.

The exact makeup of the plastic is determined by the biomass produce which it is fed, meaning a crop like hemp, containing an unusual concentration of cellulose, a critical component in market-grade plastic, proves advantageous in production. PHA’s are being created using the excess organic waste of producers by companies such as Full Cycle Bioplastics, and gaining traction in the market. PHA’s share many qualities with polyethylene and polypropylene, and are entirely compostable, meaning they’re both created and consumed by naturally occurring bacteria.

Hemp is grown for textiles, fuels, and CBD, among other purposes, and each use case means significant opportunity for hemp-based PHA’s. Alongside this new development, hemp also delivers advantages in traditional bioplastics. Hemp’s robust crop structure means it can (and is) commonly grown without the use of damaging pesticides and fertilizers. In fact, there are no registered pesticides for the crop in Ontario! Organically grown hemp has the potential to eliminate chemical imbalances in ocean waters found from conventional plastic. While this doesn’t solve the problem of degradation time, it provides what bioplastics need most; interest.

For traditional bioplastics to supply effective market products, recycling infrastructure will need to develop at a faster rate in North America. A new consumer and a new focus on true sustainability indicates a trend in the right direction.

Where public opinion goes, money usually follows.